Monday, October 31, 2022


Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability, Global Change, Biodiversity, Nature, Wildlife

Ed Hessler

The September 12 The New Yorker has a feature article by D. T. Max on Florida Keys ocean diver Rachel Bowman, an exceptional specialist "in the hunting, catching, and killing of lionfish, a species native to Indo-Pacific waters," where. "many countries" do not allow spearing "without a permit." 

The differences between Asian water lionfish and their American counterpart
are profound and this essay is about what happened when lionfish became "Americanized."

--This popular saltwater aquarium species - "shimmery white bodies overlaid with bold red or orange stripes, a Mohawk of spikes on the their back, and clashing patterns on their finds and faces" - were probably introduced by their owners unhappy with their "insatiable appetite," i.e., they cleaned the tanks of other fishes.

--"The first recorded sighting was in 1985, off Dania Beach, a community just north of Miami" and "have succeeded mightily in their new environment--there are now many millions of them in the Western Atlantic. This includes Bermuda, Cuba, Yucatan Peninsula, Brazil, Gulf of Mexico and "seen as far north as Rhode Island" where, so far, winter kills them.

--Lionfish disrupt reef life, "(vacuuming), larvae, diminishing the variety of future generations. Max calls attention to a "2008 study in the Bahamas calculated that lionfish arriving at a new reef can eliminate more than eighty per-cent of other species within five weeks." 

Lionfish have the ability to expand their mouths (they can eat fish "more than half (their) body size which can reach 19," larger than their Asian relatives which can reach 12", expand (their)  stomach "up to thirty times its normal size," so they can also gorge but they can also exist on nothing for three months. Their life span is up to 15 years and they "can descend a thousand feet or more." Furthermore, they can live in brackish water.  And in our waters they have no natural predators; the reasons are not understood which led to some interesting  behavioral experiments in potential predator training. It failed.  In addition, "Americanized lionfish...behave differently," too,  unafraid "of other fish or of divers." They are, in two words, formidable predators.

--Spearing them is wide open wide open with "no bag limits, sex limits, seasons, boat limits, (or) gear limits."  It has become a team tournament activity with substantial cash prizes based on numbers caught). Because lionfish are edible; tournament catches  "are marketable," so can be sold.

--Early on Bowman learned that selling them to restaurants  "was breaking the law--restaurants can serve only fish acquired from authorized providers. (That way, if there is an illness, the source can be traced." In what I thought was remarkable on the part of a state agency, "the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (F.W.C.) when informing her that it was illegal also said to her "'what you're doing is awesome.'" They didn't fine her but "encouraged her to sell her fish through proper channels, and with proper paperwork."  When she "started making real money...she bought a boat (the Britney Spears)...and became an important source of harvest data and fish samples" for scientists. The latter activity has resulted in acknowledgments in peer-reviewed publications.`` She also "became the first person to sell lionfish to Whole Foods. She is Florida Keys' only female commercial lionfish harvester.

--Max discusses  the toll spearfishing can take on divers including  being jabbed in the hands by the venomous spines (In Bowman's decade of diving about 3 times a week this has happened about 30 times which she describes as "misery"),  decompression  from ascending too quickly (not unusual to spear at 200 feet and at tournaments  dives can average 18/day), sinus strain, nasal air passage narrowing, ruptured nasal capillaries. Bowman also told Max that spine-proof gloves do not exist.

--On cleaning up yet another human-made mess, Max notes a unique American problem, the creation of artificial reefs which creates many small spaces for lionfish to inhabit, thereby concentrating their numbers. Another is that dragnetd can't be used since they would become continually snagged "on the reefs where lionfish live. It is presently "one lionfish at a time" (although a spear can hold man more at a time with no effect on the behavior of free swimming lion fish). Spearfishing's effects are small in scale compared to lionfish distribution and numbers. However, it has noticeable local beneficial effects to reef habitat (and is fun). It is endorsed by Reef Conservation International in Belize. 

On a larger scale traps traps are being use and on which work has occurred for half a dozen years. Traps also have another plus because they can be used at depth.  Alex Fogg, the coastal -resource manager for Destin-Fort Walton Beach cut directly to the chase when he told Max "'You've got to get the commercial fisherman to slaughter the hell out of them."

--Education can play a role as well. Alex Fogg who coordinated the Emerald Coast Open "gave top Destin restaurants free lionfish, in return for their training servers to explain to customers why the species is an invasive pest (and how tasty one can be). He "also set up an information booth on the waterfront. A veteran sea captain explained the lionfish problem to passersby" to other attractions. Ecology is becoming a tourism draw.

--Education also includes collecting specimens for research and Rachel Bowman and friends makes a yearly trip "to cull lionfish for scientific study. (The fish are dissected on the boat and then sent to a lab in Galveston.) The goal, in part, is to determine the impact of lionfish on other species at a remote site.

Max's essay includes more details and his spearfishing trip. "The artificiality of my spearing experience," he writes "only underscored the artificiality of the entire reef ecosystem. The Destin reefs had been created by humans--and, if you got rid of them, you'd get rid of most of the lionfish. But, at another point in the day I stared down toward the submerged modules of a different fake reef. I I see all sorts of native life swirling around" grouper and snapper, tomtate and angelfish/ If you wanted to keep all this around, maybe you had to treat the Florida coast like an aquarium."

The essay is on-line. For a picture of lionfish reflected on a diver's goggles see here.  By the time this is published you may have to scroll down to find it. And here is a YouTube video (8m 58s) from the 2018 Florida Spearfishing Competition.

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